I wish to discuss here a new spirituality, a spirituality which has discarded its old limitations and inhibitions but still draws on its ancient roots and whose aim is the perfection of human life on earth. Sri Aurobindo and his collaborator the Mother were the pioneers of this new spirituality. They have been, in my opinion, the greatest revolutionaries in the spiritual annals of mankind. The intellectual elite in many parts of the world have already taken note of their contribution. The time has surely come for us as Indians to throw away the coloured glasses of our inherited and borrowed prejudices and to make an honest attempt to understand what they have been saying. The world is preparing for a great change; and Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are our safest guides to this new world.
My own discovery of Sri Aurobindo took place when as a university student I chanced upon a statement of his which read: “Heaven we have possessed, but not the earth; but the fullness of the Yoga is to make, in the formula of the Veda, ‘Heaven and Earth equal and one’.”1 The word ‘heaven’ is used here to symbolise perfection and this goal of achieving perfection of life here on earth has always appealed to me. Later, I came across a more definitive statement from him on his commitment to this goal:
Sri Aurobindo received a totally Western education, and knew its civilisation very well. His discovery of India and of its spiritual heritage came about later, after he returned to India in 1893. He had by then spent the formative years of his life, from the age of seven to 21, in England. Because he knew the West so well, he was keen to avoid the excesses and pitfalls he had seen in the Western approach to life, although he had a deep appreciation for all that was progressive and liberal in Western humanism.
Western civilisation is supposed to be characterised by three features: a strong drive towards action, a scientific world-view, and a philosophy of enlightened self-interest. Western civilisation has been one of action; it has sought to act on human history through politics and it has sought to act on the world through knowledge of the laws of nature which it has transformed and bent to man’s needs. This has been true of most of its thinkers from Plato to Karl Marx who have always sought to put their thoughts into action. Inventions like the steam engine, the telescope and the microscope, the use of electricity and nuclear energy— all these technological achievements have brought about a real change in the world we live in. The Western model of acting on the world has a global appeal today and everywhere there is a frenzy not only to copy this Western model of action but also to adopt Western notions of happiness and lifestyle.
To describe Western culture as scientific may not be entirely correct since very few people even in the West take part in science, although everyone benefits from it. There is no denying, however, that the West has tried to use practical reason and modern science to find solutions to the problems of the world; it has tried to eliminate from human life error, sorrow, pain and death. But it has largely failed to do so because the West envisages only external and secondary causes, and tries to remove them; it is unable to eliminate the roots of the malady against which we struggle. Its science is hampered in reaching its goal because of its excessive subjection to apparent fact and its refusal to look into the profounder facts of man’s inner life. On the whole, it has some times managed to manipulate circumstances and alleviate pain and suffering but it cannot exercise essential control over them.
In spite of the spectacular successes of the West, a widespread weariness, a malaise seems to have affected it which makes a significant minority of people in these countries thirst for a more spiritual concept of happiness. There is a growing realisation that although the so-called Western methodology is a major contribution to satisfying elementary, physical needs, its obsession with improving living conditions through technological progress helps only to solve secondary problems. This spectacular material progress is a deceptive facade that masks the meaninglessness of modern life. What is the point in trying to double the length of human life if we fail to give meaning to that life? This would only condemn us to a life of 200 years of depression and bad moods. Thus a significant minority in the West is now looking for a happiness which is beyond that defined by a Harvard degree, a large stock portfolio, a flat stomach, an international credit card and an agreeable live-in companion. If Jesus and Marx have proved to be gods that failed, it may be time to turn to the Buddha. If the traditional church and Marxism haven’t delivered, a spirituality which is sufficiently secular may be the answer.
The Western value system is said to be based on enlightened self-interest; but often this self-interest is selfishness glorified as the enhancement of the self. The strengthening of individuality as a primary agent in decision-making seems to be yielding diminishing returns. There is a growing dissatisfaction with the ability of the Western value system to govern individual lives. In its American variety of this value system, money has become a sublime good and has become a surrogate for love, work, art, play and thought. As Lapham points out we can buy everything that anybody can buy in the department store of the free world: “the Ferrari, the third husband, the F-16, the villa at Cap d’Antibes, the indoor tennis court and the Strategic Defence Initiative. But, no, it is not enough. We are not happy. Somehow we deserve more.”3 Western civilisation in general has also come under serious criticism at the hands of thinkers like Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler and Konrad Lorenz as the harbinger of the various crises humanity is facing today. Since these critiques are well-known, I do not wish to repeat them here.
There is another aspect of the Western civilisation which the rest of the world is trying to emulate, although with diminishing enthusiasm. The West has tried fervently to bring happiness to man, primarily by transforming the outer world. This is the materialist approach, which seeks to perfect humanity by using outward means and one of its main efforts has been to construct a perfect social and political system which will train men to be what they ought to be. I am referring here to the large-scale attempts made in the West to build utopias through social reform and revolution. Since the early 18th century, Europe sought to attain justice and happiness by organising a society that delivered happiness to its members through collective justice. The study of political systems became a new branch of ethics and revolution became the mode of establishing a utopia by building a new political, economic and social system from top to bottom. The first major attempt of this sort was the French Revolution in which the modern concept of a revolution emerged. Now whenever the authors of a revolution have conceived a model of society they consider perfect, they feel that they have the right to impose it on others, and, if necessary, to eliminate anyone who resists their attempts. This took place in Russia when the Marxist-Leninist theory was put into practice after the Bolshevik revolution, and later in China under Mao. In the Pol Pot in Cambodia the logic of such systems was pushed to the extreme; the result was grotesque and deadly excesses. All of these systems share a central idea—building a utopia through the revolutionary transformation of society. But all of them failed in practice. Social reform was supposed to replace ethical reform, but it has led to disaster; the West is now distraught by the failure of its social systems and is faced with an ethical vacuum. Hence the widespread interest in wisdom doctrines and Eastern spirituality. We see a growing tendency in the West to look up towards Eastern spirituality to learn how to act on oneself and on the world.
But what has spirituality to offer? In its essence, spirituality is an awakening to the inner reality of our being. The spiritual way is to work outward from within the way of materialism is to work inward from without. Materialism makes the inner a result of the outer, and therefore fundamentally a phenomenon of matter. Spirituality works inward by opening the mind, vital and physical to the inner reality in us.
The spiritualist believes that transforming the outer world has its limits and the effect of outer transformation on our inner happiness is limited. For man is not a machine and it is his mind that makes him feel happy or miserable. The spiritualist thus believes that trying to act on the outer world without having transformed oneself inwardly can’t lead to long-term or lasting happiness. If we have the necessary inner power, we should try to act on the outer world, but the inner transformation is the indispensable first step.
To eliminate long-term suffering, we should reflect on the origin of suffering and become aware of the ignorance which brings us suffering. Our identification with the ego or a separate self is the root cause of our suffering. We cherish this ego-self, with all its desires, and suffering comes when it does not get what it wants. This ego-self is believed by some spiritualists to be a fictitious thing with no real existence, while others believe that it is only a mask or a surface self which hides our true self. But both agree that we must detach ourselves from it. Once we develop a detachment from this limited self, we are no longer afraid of not getting what we want or being subjected to what we don’t want. This then leads to a state of inner illumination. And all are unanimous about the positive, blissful and abiding nature of the experience that comes from this state of egolessness. Once you are in that state, you find yourself engulfed in infinite peace, infinite knowledge, infinite bliss and immortality.
The efficacy of spirituality in acting on oneself and removing the real causes of our suffering permanently is a proven fact of subjective experience. It is not surprising, therefore, that a growing number of people in the West are attracted by the various kinds of meditation practices and to Eastern spirituality in general.
Here we must pause for a while and raise a few questions about the value of this spiritual enterprise. For one thing, it is necessary to recognise that this enterprise has a fairly low rate of success. In spite of the popularity of spiritual establishments in the West, genuine spirituality is a very arduous undertaking and success in it demands an inner call, patience, perseverance and total commitment. It is worthwhile, therefore, to bear in mind the caution voiced by the Bhagavad Gita, that among the many who strive to follow the path only a rare individual reaches the destination.
Secondly, we must ask, isn’t spirituality in the final analysis a selfish undertaking? I am only one person, while others are countless; how significant then is what happens to me, whether good or bad, to the happiness of others?
Many spiritualists would agree that to free oneself alone from suffering is a severely limited goal. One should have the intention of attaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings. You transform yourself in order to acquire the capacity to help others free themselves from suffering. But the question is: what power does this give us to prevent the kinds of evil that I have just mentioned? In other words, does spirituality enable us to act on the world and make it a better place?
Of course, the enlightened spiritual person has the power to help others take to his path through his example, influence and teaching. But how far does this go towards alleviating the world’s suffering? There has been no dearth of spiritual luminaries in this world and most of them have tried vigorously to propagate their teachings to the world at large. What has been its tangible effect on the human mass ? As a character in Sri Aurobindo’s great epic Savitri puts it:
The Avatars have lived and died in vain,
Vain was the sage’s thought, the prophet’s voice;
In vain is seen the shining upward Way.
Earth lies unchanged beneath the circling sun;
She loves her fall and no omnipotence
Her mortal imperfections can erase,
Force on man’s crooked ignorance Heaven’s straight line
Or colonise a world of death with gods.4
The non-spiritualists have tried to solve the problems of war, poverty, famine and ecological destruction, but we have seen that their solutions are temporary in effect because they do not go deep enough in their search for the roots of these maladies. But the spiritualist does not seem to fare any better here since he has an almost impracticable agenda before him. For he believes that it is never going to be possible for groups of humans to stop killing each other, as in Bosnia, until individuals change themselves—that is, until the individuals themselves one by one give up anger, hatred and violence. Many thinkers and ideologies base their hopes of universal peace on a transformation of human nature. All the systems of wisdom, the great Utopias and the main religions have reckoned on that hypothesis. But we haven’t yet found a way of changing human nature that really works on a wide scale.
There is another ideological stance some spiritualists take—an isolationist one—and many varieties of Indian spirituality proudly proclaim their adherence to it. In essence, this ideology asks you to reject the world as a source of falsehood, corruption and imperfection in order to save yourself from being contaminated by it. The lure of moksha, liberation from the world-illusion, has caught many in its net. The world in which we live, they say, is like the crooked tail of a dog; it can never be made straight. The only wise course of action is to reject this world and turn within to the consciousness of Brahman which is the only reality. But withdrawing from the world in the name of spirituality is tantamount to saying that the creator has made a blunder in creating this world, and we in our wisdom have decided to correct it by opting out and uniting inwardly with the divine. This kind of spirituality has been the bane of our nation; it has made life seem not worth living, and so we have neglected it. The question is not whether Mayavada, the name by which this philosophy is known, is logically sound or not, but whether it is a worthy ideal for mankind, for it fails both man and God and makes this marvellous creation a pointless exercise.
It is against the background of such a world-negating spirituality that the new spirituality propounded by Sri Aurobindo has to be seen. Sri Aurobindo does not reject the Indian spiritual tradition. He only extends it in such a way that it ceases to be merely an endeavour for personal fulfilment and becomes instead a means of bringing perfection to life on earth as a whole. His starting point is the perception of the ancient sages of India that behind the appearances of the universe there is the reality of a being or a consciousness, a self of all things, one and eternal. To put his teaching briefly in his own words:
… this One Being and Consciousness is involved here in Matter. Evolution is the method by which it liberates itself; consciousness appears in what seems to be inconscient, and once having appeared is self-impelled to grow higher and higher and at the same time to enlarge and develop towards a greater and greater perfection. Life is the first step of this release of consciousness; mind is the second; but the evolution does not finish with the mind, it awaits a release into something greater, a consciousness which is spiritual and supramental. The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of Supermind and Spirit as the dominant power in the conscious being. For only then will the involved Divinity in things release itself entirely and it become possible for life to manifest perfection.5
The early steps in evolution were taken by nature since there is no conscious will in the plant and animal life. In man, nature at last has a conscious instrument since it has evolved in him a conscious mind and will. This self-reflective consciousness has brought with it the ability to direct its own destiny. But for further evolution, the mind in man is not enough because after a point it can only move in a circle. A conversion has to be made, a turning of the consciousness by which the mind may change into a higher principle. The method to do this is the ancient psychological discipline and practice of yoga. In the past, yoga meant drawing away from the world and it culminated in merging into the self or the spirit. Sri Aurobindo teaches that a yoga is possible which will enable man to acquire a consciousness which is higher than the mind; he called it the Supermind, or the ‘supramental truth-consciousness’. This new consciousness will have sufficient power not only to release man inwardly into the highest spirit but also to enable him to grow out of his animal humanity into a divine being. His claim is that this supramental consciousness will be able to change human nature and bring to all the parts of our being, mind, life and body, a divine perfection.
Now to go back to our basic question: how will this new consciousness change human life on earth?
Let me begin with a brief quotation from one of Sri Aurobindo’s letters in which he explains what effect this consciousness will have on human life in general.
It is likely that as the supramental principle evolved itself the evolution would more and more take another aspect—the Daivic nature would predominate, the Asuro-Rakshaso-Pishachic prakriti which now holds so large a place would more and more recede and lose its power. A principle of greater unity, harmony and light would emerge everywhere. It is not that the creation in the ignorance would be altogether abolished, but it would begin to lose much of its elements of pain and falsehood and would be more a progression from lesser to higher truth, from a lesser to a higher harmony, from a lesser to a higher light, than the reign of chaos and struggle, of darkness and error that we now perceive.6
Each level of consciousness is a power. The mental consciousness, for example, is a power which has enabled us to take in the experience of the physical world, subject it to the processes of induction and deduction and reshape it. Not even the chimpanzee, which among the higher primates is closest to man, has been able to do this because it does not possess the mental consciousness which man has. Again, consider the acquisition of human language which is a complex means of communication. It has been shown that even when systematic efforts are made a chimpanzee’s capacity to acquire human language is extremely limited, may be a few 100 words and less than 1,000 sentences after several years of training. But a human child effortlessly acquires the language to which he is exposed by the time he is around four years old. This is once again because the human child has a mental consciousness. In the same way, the supramental consciousness will bring to us powers which will change human nature by breaking down its present limits. Its greatest promise is that it will enable us to change human nature at all levels. And there is no doubt that a radical change in human nature holds the key to our very survival on this planet.
In Janus7, one of the last books he wrote, Arthur Koestler lamented that humanity is a doomed species. He was convinced that the species suffers from a paranoid streak and this is seen in the way man has always used his powers to harm himself. Now with the acquisition of nuclear power he has acquired the awesome capability of destroying the whole of human species. And it may be only a few more decades before man actually succeeds in committing this final holocaust. Koestler attributed this to a fundamental flaw in the evolution of the human brain as maintained in the Papez-Maclean theory of emotions. This theory states that man has a tripartite brain structure; at the bottom he has a reptilian brain, on top of it the brain of a horse and on the topmost level, the human aspect, the neo-cortex. The two old brains have remained un-evolved for some reason while the neo-cortex has evolved tremendously during the last half a million years. As a result of this evolutionary confusion, our reasoning powers, which reside in the new brain are unable to control our instincts, passions and biological drives which are controlled by our reptilian and mammalian brains. Thus the raging fury of passionately held irrational beliefs and attachments drives us to savage behaviour while reason sits unable to control that part of our life.
Sri Aurobindo spoke about an evolutionary crisis that humanity is facing today. He pointed out that in certain directions the mind has achieved enormous development but in others it stands bewildered and no longer knows the way. There is nothing in the mental consciousness that makes man look beyond the stress of economic and physical needs. He is presently engaged in cultivating a multiplication of new wants and an aggressive expansion of his collective ego. Science in the meanwhile has put into his hands great powers of the universal Force and has also made the life of humanity materially one, but what uses this universal Force is a little human ego, individual and communal.
Whether we accept Sri Aurobindo’s analysis or Koestler’s analysis of the human predicament, it is clear that the human mind today stands arrested. Everybody is convinced that until human nature is changed there is no future for mankind. Koestler believes that human nature cannot be changed because the evolutionary flaw in the making of the brain cannot now be rectified, except partially through medication. But Sri Aurobindo takes this evolutionary impasse as an indication that a leap in to a higher consciousness has to be taken, beyond the mind to the supermind. He believes that with this new consciousness man will be able to do what the mental consciousness has been unable to do, namely, change human nature.
Here is an example of what this might mean. More and more people have come to the conclusion that the limitations on human happiness are not primarily external limitations any more, they are inner limitations. If people still die today of malnutrition, and children in large numbers are crippled for life for lack of elementary health care and safe drinking water it is not because we do not have adequate resources to prevent these tragedies but because we do not have the heart and the will to share with our unfortunate brothers what we have in plenty. The limits of our happiness are essentially the inner ones—our narrowness, selfishness, ego, our greed and possessiveness and the tendency to exploit people who are weaker than us.
The older spirituality recognised this, but the means it had were not adequate for transforming human nature completely and permanently. All that the religious teachings and moral exhortations have given us is the thin veneer of a satwic nature. But at the first opportunity, the beast in us is ready to come out and rule us. At present the grades of consciousness above the ordinary mind can only act as influences; they can indirectly influence the human mind and consciousness but cannot do more. Therefore, there is no permanent change in human nature yet. This explains why the efforts of the saints and the old spirituality have so far not produced permanent results. For this we have to grow into a greater spiritual consciousness—what Sri Aurobindo called the supramental consciousness.
The supramental consciousness is a consciousness of unity, a consciousness that is not ego-bound like the mental consciousness. Harmony and oneness with all are natural to it because it is a spiritual consciousness. Just as the consciousness of a chimpanzee does not have a natural aptitude for acquiring a human language, the human mind too does not seem to have a natural aptitude for spiritual attributes. Only the supermind has a natural propensity for what are called the daivic qualities like love, brotherhood, charity and compassion.
The manifestation of the supermind outwardly, visibly and physically, is a long process, or at least a process with a long preparation. The yoga-tapasya of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was aimed at hastening the descent of the supramental consciousness in the earth-atmosphere and the Mother has assured us that the new consciousness has descended. It is now a living force on earth just as the thinking mental consciousness and the higher mental consciousness are already at work here. Its effects on individuals and earth-life will be slowly worked out in the course of time just as the effects of the mental consciousness were worked out over time. During the initial stages a few human beings will succeed in acquiring the new consciousness and they will be the pioneers. In course of time an increasing number of people on earth will be able to manifest this consciousness. However, it is not likely to overpower the earth in a moment. All those who aspire for the transformation of consciousness will now find the earth-atmosphere more favourable for their progress. As time passes, more and more people will be able to acquire this consciousness and eventually a race of supramental beings will appear on this earth.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the future is the vision of a divine life on earth. As he says in the concluding part of Savitri:
Nature shall live to manifest secret God,
The Spirit shall take up the human play,
This earthly life become the life divine.8
Even among those who accept this vision there is the question: how soon will this change happen? Students of evolution have told us that evolution is continuing to accelerate and that wherever we are going, we are going there fast. Many who have watched the cross-catalytic progress in biology, atomic physics, energy sources, mobility and communication have come to the conclusion that we are today passing through a jump in evolution far more concentrated and intense and of far greater evolutionary importance than any we have so far seen. Those of us who are impatient to see the manifestation of the new consciousness would do well to remember that we are now on the threshold of an evolutionary leap as significant as the evolution of life from inanimate matter, which took billions of years. The change I have described above is not expected to take billions of years, but it may take centuries. On the other hand, for those of us who are sensitive to such things evidence is already gathering thick and fast indicating that the new force is at work in our midst.
Finally, people often wonder whether this marvellous light of the new consciousness can ever really descend on our sordid earth. For many, Sri Aurobindo’s vision for man may appear more like a scenario in a fairy tale than in real life. As he himself said in Savitri:
A few shall see what none yet understands;
God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep;
For man shall not know the coming till its hour
And belief shall be not till the work is done.9
Thus we must ask, can earthly life be made really perfect? I cannot do better than quote a few lines from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri which answer a similar scepticism:
How sayst thou Truth can never light the human mind
And Bliss can never invade the mortal’s heart
Or God descend into the world he made?
If in the meaningless Void creation rose,
If from a bodiless Force Matter was born,
If life could climb in the unconscious tree,
Its green delight break into emerald leaves
And its laughter of beauty blossom in the flower,
If sense could wake in tissue, nerve and cell
And Thought seize the grey matter of the brain,
And soul peep from its secrecy through the flesh,
How shall the nameless Light not leap on men,
And unknown powers emerge from Nature’s sleep?
Even now hints of a luminous Truth like stars
Arise in the mind-mooned splendour of Ignorance;
Even now the deathless Lover’s touch we feel:
If the chamber’s door is even a little ajar,
What then can hinder God from stealing in
Or who forbid his kiss on the sleeping soul?
Already God is near, the Truth is close:
Because the dark atheist body knows him not,
Must the sage deny the Light, the seer his soul?10
NOTES ON THE TEXT
1. Sri Aurobindo: On Himself (SABCL Vol. 26), pp. 424-425.
2. ibid. p. 124.
3. Quoted in Shamlal’s review of Money and Class in America by Lewis H. Lapham in A Hundred Encounters, Rupa & Co.
4. Sri Aurobindo: Savitri (SABCL Vol. 29), pp. 609-610.
5. Sri Aurobindo: On Himself (SABCL Vol. 26), p. 95.
6. The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice (Selected Letters of Sri Aurobindo), pp. 73-74
7. Arthur Koestler: Janus, A Summing Up, Hutchinson of London, 1978.
8. Sri Aurobindo: Savitri (SABCL Vol. 29), p. 710.
9. ibid. p. 55.
10. ibid. pp. 648-649.
This is an edited transcript of the talk, delivered as the Sri Aurobindo oration at the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, on Sept. 04, 2001. It originally appeared at the book “India’s Spiritual Destiny: Its Inevitability and Potentiality”, 2006.